Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

Wild Beauty

Information

Goodreads: Wild Beauty
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: October 3, 2017

Official Summary

Love grows such strange things.

For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.

Review

Wild Beauty is one of those captivating books half-caught between fantasy and reality.  The protagonists live in our world, speaking Spanish and praying to the Christian God, yet their lives play out in an enchanted garden of their own making.  The women of the family are blessed with the ability to make flowers grow in any soil, any weather; they are cursed with the fact that anyone they love romantically eventually disappears.  The mix of the two worlds is on some occasions jarring, but when the focus remains on the women’s lives, their hopes and fears and relationships with each other, the result is pure magic.

The book is told from the alternating points of view of Estrella, one of the youngest cousins living in the garden, and Fel, a boy Estrella dug up from the ground who initially cannot remember anything about his past.  One can see the romance coming from a mile away, even as Estrella swears not to fall in love too hard, lest Fel disappear.  However, their relationship was one of the least interesting facets of the book for me.  Rather, I loved watching Estrella interact with the other women of her family and with the greedy man who comes to have legal ownership over the garden where her family lives.  I loved watching Fel become part of the family and think hard about his past and the family he must have once had.

Estrella’s four cousins are all well-developed and become primary characters in their own rights.  Their mothers and grandmothers are more sketches, groups in the background who seem to function as one rather than individuals.  But perhaps it is not surprising that a YA book would forefront the young characters and push the older ones away.  At any rate, I did enjoy reading about each of the cousins and learning their personalities and seeing how they acted as a family—sometimes fighting and bitter but always ready to have each other’s backs.

In terms of plot, I’m somewhat conflicted about the “big reveal” near the end of the story.  It’s certainly not something I saw coming, in part because I’m not 100% convinced it makes a lot of sense.  However, arguably part of the draw of the story is going with the flow and accepting that sometimes things don’t make sense; sometimes they just are.  We can try to react to them, but we cannot necessarily change them or stop them.

Wild Beauty is ultimately a book to be savored and thought over.  It’s about family and friendship and trying to make your own path while being beholden to others.  It’s about beauty and sorrow and pain and what we do to live with ourselves and the world we have inherited.  Some people might find it a bit of a slow read, but personally I thought it worthwhile.

4 stars Briana

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The Dark Intercept by Julia Keller

The Dark Intercept

Information

GoodreadsThe Dark Intercept
Series: The Dark Intercept #1
Source: City Book Review
Published: October 31, 2017

Summary

Violet Crowley is the daughter of the president of New Earth, a utopian society built in the skies of Old Earth. The peace is kept by the Intercept, a computer program that tracks everyone’s emotions and can weaponize them if necessary, stopping crime before it’s committed. As Rebels arise questioning the Intercept, however, Violet must determine whether she believes safety is worth the intrusion on her emotions.

Review

I’ve been stumbling across various YA dystopian novels lately that are being quietly marketed as general science fiction than as specifically dystopians; The Dark Intercept is one of them. While I don’t think publishers need to stop releasing dystopians, I do think authors need to do a lot more to make their stories stand out in the wake of The Hunger Games fad, and The Dark Intercept simply fails to offer anything new.  The book is fine, particularly for younger readers who may have missed the original dystopian craze, but personally I was bored.

I don’t like “emotions dystopians” in the first place because it seems pretty far-fetched to me that the government would have a real interest in controlling things like love.  In The Dark Intercept, readers are faced with a world where the government has determined that they can control people through emotional memories.  Basically, if someone looks like they might commit a violent crime, you initiate a bad memory and Boom! they’re on the ground sobbing, incapacitated.  No crime is committed, and the police don’t need to deal with things like guns themselves.

This whole premise seems unlikely to me, but, okay, I guess.  My bigger issue is that, although I agree having the government track your emotions is invasive, the stakes seem so much lower here than in other dystopian novels.  You see, the government doesn’t actually do anything with your emotions unless you are actively committing a crime.  Legally, no one is allowed to look at your file, and it seems no one does.  Yes, I would still push back against this system because it has the potential to be abused by the government in the future, but in the heat of the moment of the book itself, things don’t seem “too” bad.

The characters that inhabit this world are well-developed, ranging from the president of New Earth to the Chief of Police to the rebels and various Intercept employees.  Violent, as a protagonist, is curious and smart, though honestly I thought a lot of the plot read as her being overly nosy and naïve.  Her love interest seems to have a fascinating life, but he doesn’t interact with Violet all that much in the book, so the romance isn’t really a selling point.

I did really appreciate that the book seems to have just about wrapped everything up because standalone dystopian novels in the YA market are rare.  However, this is apparently supposed to be a series anyway.  I have no idea where it will be going from here and, frankly, don’t personally care.  This book is fine but just not a stand out in any way.
3 Stars Briana

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

Librarian of Auschwitz

Information

Goodreads: The Librarian of Auschwitz
TranslatorLilit Thwaites
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: October 10, 2017

Official Summary

Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.
Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the Terezín ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.

Out of one of the darkest chapters of human history comes this extraordinary story of courage and hope.

Review

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a moving story following Dita, a Jewish teenager who was charged with the care and keeping of eight clandestine books in the secret school the prisoners established in the family “show camp” in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The novel, as clarified by the real-life Dita, is a fictionalization of real events, combining painstaking research with the author’s “rich imagination.” The result is a novel that is hard (it’s about Auschwitz, after all) but which also highlights the small beauties and acts of humanity that can flourish in even the most terrible of places.

The book weaves the stories of various other prisoners at Auschwitz into the narrative, ranging from Rudi Rosenberg, a camp registrar who eventually escaped and tried to warn the world of what the Germans were really doing in the concentration camps, to Fredy Hirsch, a youth sports leader who became in charge of the secret school in Block 31. The extra narratives make the book longer, and sometimes sadder since readers know from the beginning that Dita survives but may not be so sure about the other character—but the seeming tangents also help provide a more complete story what happened at Auschwitz.

The point-of-view is therefore sometimes odd, or it may be to readers used to the US young adult market, which is dominated by novels written in a first person limited perspective. The Librarian of Auschwitz is third person omniscient, switching not long among the points of view of various characters who may never interact with each other at all in the book but also to a narrative voice which occasionally interjects straight-up history lessons and commentary into the book.

At times, I found the story slow. I stopped reading it for a while then went to pick it back up, assuming I was at least halfway through; I was actually barely a quarter into the book. However, the story is one that should take time, drawing readers carefully through the various layers. Recommended for fans of historical fiction.

4 stars Briana

Everless by Sara Holland

EverlessInformation

Goodreads: Everless
Series: Everless #1
Source: Library
Published: January 2, 2018

Official Summary

In the kingdom of Sempera, time is currency—extracted from blood, bound to iron, and consumed to add time to one’s own lifespan. The rich aristocracy, like the Gerlings, tax the poor to the hilt, extending their own lives by centuries.

No one resents the Gerlings more than Jules Ember. A decade ago, she and her father were servants at Everless, the Gerlings’ palatial estate, until a fateful accident forced them to flee in the dead of night. When Jules discovers that her father is dying, she knows that she must return to Everless to earn more time for him before she loses him forever.

But going back to Everless brings more danger—and temptation—than Jules could have ever imagined. Soon she’s caught in a tangle of violent secrets and finds her heart torn between two people she thought she’d never see again. Her decisions have the power to change her fate—and the fate of time itself.

Review

Everless has a fabulous premise, introducing readers to a world where time is used as currency, but everyone except the elite seem to be running out of it.  The story builds on this original premise by moving the story’s setting from Jules’s impoverished town to Everless itself–the sumptuous manner of the local ruling family.  Since I love unique fantasy and books that bring readers into the lush lives of the wealthy, I was on board with this from the start.

Granted, the point is that not everything is what it seems and that the glittering lives of the rich are built (pretty literally here) on the blood of the poor. Plus, our protagonist is a servant, so she’s not 100% living the high life herself.  However, I enjoyed the balance of seeing both dies of this world, the lower class and the upper class.  I’ve been reading a lot of books lately about servant girls who work in the kitchen and live in a dormitory of cots with other girls and want to be handmaiden to their mistresses, etc., so the world-building was not 100% as fresh as I’d like, but it still drew me in.

I was also a fan of Jules. Sure, she does the stereotypical thing of doing exactly what she was warned not to do if she at all valued her life, but she’s at least self-aware about it. She realizes it’s objectively stupid but decides she’s willing to take the risk to find out what she wants to know.  She’s not necessarily foolish; she just knows what she wants and is willing to take risks to get it, and I can get behind that.

However, I have two  main issues with the novel. First, the magic system is unclear to me and seems hand-wavy. We know that someone found a way to extract time from blood; how or why is not mentioned.  (Obviously, it’s clear why people would want to live longer and would therefore want to take time from other people, but it’s not immediately obvious to me how time came to act as currency.)  The ambiguity of the magic was not a deal breaker for me in this novel; however, because of the way the plot went, I believe the author will need to clarify this in book two, or it will become a problem.

Second, the romance is not convincing. I won’t go into details in order to avoid spoilers, but the gist is that I don’t think the protagonist actually knows that much about the love interest; she also barely interacts with him. This, too, is something that could be fixed in book two, but we’ll have to wait to see.

In spite of these flaws, the book is original and entertaining enough that I truly enjoyed reading it. It’s strong YA fantasy, and I look forward to reading the sequel, where I think our protagonist will really grow into her own and show her strength.

I’d give this book 3.5 stars, but we don’t generally give half stars on the blog, so I don’t have a graphic for that.

Briana

8 Fantasy Books Featuring Court Intrigue

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

In the underground city of Caverna, babies are born without the ability to show emotion and must be taught Faces to express themselves.  The richer you are, the more Faces you have.  But then Neverfell appears from the world above.  Her face, with its ability to show exactly what she is feeling, makes her a danger to a world carefully built on lies and intrigue.  Frances Hardinge imagines an extraordinary world full of magic and madness–a world so original that you will want to return for me.  Unfortunately, this one is a standalone.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Nineteen-year-old Kelsea Glynn is heir to the Tearling throne, but may not live to be crowned queen. As a baby, she was stolen away from the castle and raised in secret by servants. After the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, her regent uncle ruled as the puppet of the Red Queen, the cruel tyrant (and rumored witch) of neighboring Mortmesne–a nation that has subdued the surrounding realms and looks to solidify its control over the Tearling. Now of age to take her rightful place on the throne, Kelsea plans to restore the independence of the Tearling and to erase her family’s legacy of bad politics. But first she must not only survive the journey to the castle but also win the love and support of her people.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMater Bujold

As a soldier turned tutor, Cazaril is now responsible for instructing the sister of the man who will one day rule.  But he turned from politics long ago and he is not certain he wants to be involved with the intrigues of the court.

The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows

Ten years ago, Wilhemina Korte, princess of Aecor, watched her parents die at the hands of the Indigo Kingdom.  She and the other noble children were taken to the capital of their conquerors.  But they escaped and now they live as spies, determined to do whatever it takes to return home.  Even if they do, however, the wraith, a toxic mist born of magic, is slowly wiping entire lands off the map.  Wil wants to become queen.  But can she protect her people from the Indigo Kingdom and the wraith?

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Years ago a young man set out on a quest to save the land from darkness. He rose in power as the Lord Ruler, but his world became one of darkness and ash. Now the skaa work as slaves under the nobles, who alone possess the genes that can impart the magical skills of Allomancy. Kelsier, a skaa thief escaped from a life of labor, dares to challenge the might of the Lord Ruler. He, after all, as a result of his mixed heritage, possesses all the skills of a Mistborn. But, if his plan is to succeed, he will also need the help of an unlikely ally–a young street urchin who does not yet know the power she wields.

Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith

In fulfillment of a vow made to their father on his deathbed, Meliara and her brother Bran declare war against the monarch whose greed now threatens the prosperity of the kingdom.  Against the odds they struggle valiantly on, but find that peace can sometimes prove more dangerous than war.  Treachery lurks everywhere at court and Mel fears to place her trust in anyone.  Her reluctance to own to her mistakes and to take sides, however, may ultimately cost her her chance at happiness.  Contains Crown Duel and Court Duel.

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

As twenty-third in line to the throne, Freya never expected to be queen.  But when someone murders the king and a number of his successors, Freya suddenly finds herself fighting for her crown.  Unable to trust her own family, she will have to find a way to win the respect of the people and forge her own destiny.

The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have spent countless hours imagining stories in the room at the top of the stairs.  Now, however, Charlotte and Emily must go off to school–where their two older sisters died from fever.  But just as it seems separation is inevitable, they find themselves in a magical world where the Duke of Wellington still fights Bonaparte.  Even stranger, the world seems to be the one they themselves have created and it is populated with their toys.  At first they imagine they can stay there forever.  But when Branwell and Anne are kidnapped, the siblings realize that this world may be out of their control.

The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross (with Spoilers!)

Information

Goodreads: The Queen’s Rising
Series: None
Source: Goodreads Giveaway ARC in exchange for an honest review
Published: Feb. 6, 2018

Summary

Brienna has grown up in Valenia, never knowing the name of her father, who hails from the neighboring land of Maevana.  Still, she always feels split.  But for now she has to focus on attempting to passion–proving that she has a talent for knowledge and being chosen by a patron.  However, when no patron chooses her, she chooses as her patron a lord who wishes to overthrow the king of Maevana.  She dreams of the day the rightful queen will rule over Maevana again, but, as she spins her webs of intrigue, she soon finds that she may have entangled herself too far.

Review

I have already provided a review of the ARC edition of The Queen’s Rising.  However, now it’s time to bring out all the spoilers and discuss in-depth all the feelings I had while reading this book.  Though I expected to love it based on the premise, I quickly found that the story is poorly paced, the romance uncomfortable, and the plot twists…not necessarily so twisty!

I can usually tell when a book is poorly constructed when I have trouble summarizing it.  In this case, I was already confused while reading the summary on the back cover, so I had some foreshadowing of what was to come.  On the one hand, this is a boarding school story about a girl who must find a way to master a passion (talent) for knowledge in three years instead of the usual seven.  And about the first third of the book focuses on her final week of classes as she tries to prepare to graduate and secure a patron.  Then, wham!  Suddenly, the book is not about Brienna’s passion at all! It’s now a court intrigue/rebellion book!

The patron she secures is not a passion, as is typical, but a man who wants to overthrow the ruler of the neighboring kingdom.  And he wants Brienna not because she’s a passion or has knowledge or really understands the lineages and history of Maevana, but because she is randomly getting memories about the hiding spot of a magical artefact.  Erm, why did we spend a third of the book wondering if Brienna has a real passion and if it needs to be inherent or if it can be gained through hard work…all for her to be chosen for patronage just because she got lucky and has memories triggered at odd moments?  Also, isn’t it grand that all the memories are super important and all related exactly to what she wants to know?

Of course, at this point I’m wondering why everyone in the country of Valenia cares so much about what happens in Maevana.  I’m pretty sure from watching the real world that the majority of people do not care what happens in other countries and are perfectly willing to overlook atrocities committed elsewhere.  Explaining that Valenia helped put the current awful king on the throne of Maevana does not convince me that so many ordinary citizens of Valenia would put themselves on the line to see a queen rule Maevana.  Nor am I convinced by Brienna’s constant musings about how she is “split in half” and that the Maevan blood calls to her or something.  She’s spent her entire life living in Valenia and knows only Valenia, but she’s suddenly super invested in Maevana and willing to die to put a queen on throne because her blood “wants to bow to a queen.”  Even if she does not know the queen.  Okay…

Yes, it is is convenient that everyone Brienna happens to meet secretly turns out to be Maevan, too! Wow, it’s almost like no one Valenian actually lives in Valenia!  Still, that does not explain the Dowager nor does it explain Merei.  (Actually, I would really like someone to explain to me how Merei knows archery when she’s spent seven years in a fancy girls’ school learning music.)  The book tries to shortcut all this, however, with some  highfalutin’ language and incredibly fast relationships.  It’s truly incredible to me that Brienna’s passion father kills to protect her one day after they’ve first met.  And truly incredible that Brienna now has a “real” family to love and die for after one day–I guess her grandfather doesn’t mean anything to her?

And how can we even begin to explain why her birth father decides to start a rebellion to put her on the throne the very first time he meets her?  Even though she’s working for his enemy?  Apparently he thinks saying, “Hey, betray your friends and join me, your true father who never cared about your existence before now” is a really convincing argument.  But I guess it works on Cartier, whose loyalty to his queen is so strong that he agrees to throw her to the wolves as soon as Brienna suggests she herself could be queen instead.  Morals? What are morals?  Cartier wouldn’t know.  Why exactly is it that we’re supposed to like and admire him, again?  Rebecca Ross seems to think it’s because offering to betray your country for your lover is super sexy, but I’m pretty sure the average woman would find a man of integrity far more attractive than Cartier.

What really bothers me, however, is the romance.  I am very uncomfortable with seeing a relationship between a teacher and a student.  Yes, it’s also weird that Brienna is 17 and Cartier is probably around 28 (assuming four years passed after he passioned and then he got a job at the school at the age of 21).  That’s a large age gap for young people.  Imagine someone out of college, nearing their thirties, dating…a high school junior.  Why?  They have nothing in common!  And the power imbalance  is a little creepy.  Cartier has much more knowledge, experience, and maturity–and could use that to manipulate a teen who is experiencing her first romance.  But, I digress.  We might, after all, hand wave this and say it’s a pseudo-medieval/Renaissance world and age gaps might not be weird in their society.  But I cannot stress enough how inappropriate it is for a teacher to fall in love with a student!

Yes, it’s true that Cartier wants until after Brienna passions (or graduates) to make any real moves, so they are no longer in a teacher-student relationship by the time most of the romance stuff starts.  We can’t argue that she might feel pressured to do…stuff…because of the power difference resulting from their professional positions.  However, Cartier’s preference for Brienna is marked enough during her time at school that another student notices it and complains.  He uses his romantic interest in her to favor her at times.  Even more uncomfortable is the fact that he sends her special adornment for her passioning and tells her how to style her hair, not because he’s her teacher and trying to help her make her best impression on future patrons, but because he gets pleasure out of seeing her dressed a certain way.  Here he is using his power as a teacher to make her present herself physically in a way that he wants.  That’s just icky.

And don’t get me started on his presumptuous choice for her passion cloak.  He chooses a constellation that does not mean anything for Brienna at the time of her graduation.  Instead, he chooses a constellation that completes his–a constellation that is about him and not about Brienna.  Because, remember, there have only been about two days of seeming flirtation between the two of them at the time that Cartier plans to present this cloak.  Was he going to use her graduation as the excuse to finally declare his love to his student?  Was he waiting years for this moment?  Now I’m uncomfortable again because it almost seems like he was waiting to pounce as soon as it was legal.  And when did his interest in her start?  When she first came to him at the age of 14 and he was 25?  Even if we hand wave the age gap, Brienna is still a child for, well, as long as Cartier knows her at school.

And then we get to the plot “twists.”  It is awkward to spend the majority of a book hiding Brienna’s parentage when it’s all revealed in a family tree before the story starts!  Also awkward are other possible reveals.  Luc=Luscas and Isolde=Yseult; their fake names are easily associated with the correct person on the family tree, for someone with a sharp eye.  I truly hope that the final version moves the family trees to the end of the book (I read an ARC).

The Queen’s Rising is an enjoyable read if you can overlook how the poor pacing and the other flaws.  I imagine most readers will since the book reflects closely what so many other YA fantasy books look like.  Still, I am very disappointed that the execution did not live up to the premise.

3 Stars

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Information

Goodreads: March: Book Three
Series: March #3
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

In the final book of John Lewis’s acclaimed March trilogy John and his friends face increasingly dangerous battles.  They want to try to register voters in the South.  But local law enforcement is against them and the federal government is reluctant to step in.

Review

John Lewis once again gives readers an inside look at the workings of the Civil Rights movement, describing the hopes and the fears, the vigorous debates over strategies, and the tensions that grew between members as well as between groups.  He also seems determined to set the record straight, noting when he spoke for himself and when he spoke as a leader of the SNCC.  Altogether, this is fascinating glimpse at a piece of history that continues to have resonances today.

Lewis makes the past come alive as he honors by name those who fought.  The men and women who worked for change, the ones who died for the cause–they are lovingly memorialized by his words.  He gifts his readers personal reminiscences, discussing his feelings on Malcolm X as well as his thoughts on MLK and Turnaround Tuesday.  He wants people to remember, to remember that there were faces behind the movement.

The artwork is, as always, absolutely stunning.  Powell renders his subjects in black and white, expertly conveying feelings of shock, horror, and loneliness–as well as feelings of determined resistance.  He does not hold back from depicting the tragedy and the violence, instead forcing readers to face the reality of what happened.  It is a powerful work, one meant to be confrontational as well as inspirational.

Lewis’s work is an important addition to the history of the Civil Rights movement, making the past seem immediate and accessible.  The March trilogy will move you, to surprise, to shock, to anger–and then to hope.

5 stars